Medieval Pigs Might Fly
by Christopher James
“You see that?” said the foreigner, pointing up.
Behrtric nudged Eadgar. Whenever you fancied a giggle, you could always rely on the foreigner to say something good. The other week he had been going on about some vision he had for horseless carriages. Behrtric had laughed so hard he’d snorted beer from his nose.
“See what?” asked Eadgar. He wanted to say something funny, but he’d hold on. The trick with the foreigner was to wait until he got excited. If you said something funny too quickly he’d cotton on and stop talking.
“That creature. What do you call that?”
They followed his finger beyond the trees to a sparrow hawk circling the sky.
“That’s a pig,” said Behrtric, quick as a flash. “We’ve got plenty of those at this time of year.”
“Really,” said the foreigner, his eyes glued to the graceful creature. It rose higher and higher until he could see it no longer, but he kept watching the sky. “I thought a pig was a ground-dwelling animal. Doesn’t Tuck have pigs?”
Behrtric kept a straight face, and he snuck a wink at Eadgar to do the same. This foreigner did use some funny words on occasion. Ground-dwelling? Really, it was difficult not to laugh.
“You’re thinking of birds,” said Eadgar. “Tuck has birds.”
“Is that right?”
“Uh-huh. Pinkish animals? With curly tails and flattened noses? That’s birds.”
The foreigner nodded, and the sparrow hawk returned into view. With the speed of the gods it shot towards the ground. It disappeared behind the leaves of the trees. When it emerged again its mouth was full.
“One day,” said the foreigner, fixed on the kicking rat in the sparrow hawk’s mouth, “I hope to fly like a pig.”
* * *
Ethelred had left Kenward and Leofric in charge of watching the pot in the clearing by Eadgar’s home. She was boiling up turnips and carrots and onions with fat slices of bacon, and the air was full with the smell of soup. The boys were throwing a ball to each other and rather neglecting their responsibility to mind the pot. Their shouts and the scent of cooking brought the foreigner to the clearing.
“Hello, children,” he said.
They’d not seen him arriving and his voice startled them. Kenward stepped closer to Leofric and held firmly to the ball. Instead of replying politely, they stared at the intruder with hard eyes, afraid and resenting. Leofric puffed his little chest up and balled his childish hands into childish fists.
“What are your names?” asked the foreigner.
Leofric squeezed Kenward’s arm. “Don’t tell him,” he whispered.
Kenward wrenched his arm free. “I’m not stupid,” he hissed back.
The foreigner was used to asking questions that were never answered, and his eyes wandered over the scene. They stilled momentarily on the ball, which Kenward held more tightly. They’d heard the strange man could kill naughty children just by staring at them; imagine what he might do to a homemade football.
The foreigner’s eyes moved swiftly on, and he smiled when he found the bubbling pot. “Incredible,” he said. “The steam makes the lid move. So much power.”
He watched the lid for a thoughtful moment longer before his gaze returned to the boys. “Children, may I remain here a while and enjoy the aroma of your meal? I shan’t disturb you.”
The children said nothing, and the foreigner settled himself down upon a tree trunk that had been chopped low for sitting on. The pot bubbled and the foreigner closed his eyes, and slowly Leofric and Kenward became used to him being there and they returned to their game.
The foreigner thought again of horseless carriages, and of flying through the sky, and of the steam, and his mind circled without effort like the sparrow hawk pig. The steam made the lid move. The horse made the carriage move. The steam went up. The ball went up. The creature he’d seen yesterday went up. Steam. Carriage. Flight. Steam. Carriage. Flight.
His thoughts were broken by the shouts of the boys. He opened his eyes and quickly worked out why they were shouting. He followed their stares sky bound to where the ball was caught in the high forking branch of an old green oak. Without a word, he wrapped his arms around the trunk of the tree and began to climb.
The ball was not so high after all, though well out of the reach of young children. As the foreigner neared his target, the boys cheered, though it did cross Kenward’s mind that the strange man might be trying to steal the ball.
“Children!” shouted the foreigner when he was close enough to touch it. He dared not go further for fear the branch would break. “Ready yourselves!”
He stretched, and he was so close. He inched forward a little more... and knocked the wayward ball from out the tree. Leofric caught it on the first bounce, and the foreigner followed the ball to the ground. He landed comfortably and the boys clapped for joy.
“What’s your name?” asked Leofric once the celebrations reached a natural end.
The foreigner was touched. “No one else has asked me that,” he said, placing his palm on his heart to show appreciation. “My name is Stork.”
“I’m Leofric,” said Leofric, “and this is Kenward.”
Stork shook hands with them both.
Leofric held the ball out to him. “Would you like to play with us?” he asked.
Stork marvelled at the simplicity of youth, where friendships were made over rescued toys. “I would like that very much,” he said, and he gently tossed the ball to Kenward. It took Kenward a second, but he finally threw the ball back. And the game began.
They were distracted enough not to notice the return of Ethelred.
“Children!” she shouted, though she was staring at the foreigner. “Go inside. Now! Your dinner is almost ready.”
Leofric and Kenward knew better than to argue with Ethelred. With heavy steps they left the clearing. They waved goodbye to Stork; and though he knew it would anger their mother, Stork waved goodbye back.
Once they were gone Ethelred came close to the foreign man. “I would thank you to leave my children alone,” she said. “If I catch you with them again I will throw you in the pot with the onions and boil you alive.”
Stork nodded slowly. It was best to hold one’s tongue. But when Ethelred picked up the pot with callused hands and went after her sons he called her back. “Just one question,” he said, “about the ball. What is the material you make it from?”
Ethelred searched his face for signs of trouble and found no more than normal. “It’s a pig’s bladder,” she said. How could it hurt to tell him that?
“Really,” said Stork to himself and to Ethelred’s departing back. “This pig is a mighty creature indeed.”
* * *
“BEHRtric, you mangy dog!”
Tuck entered Behrtric’s favourite bar with much fanfare.
“Tuck, you fat pig. You smell worse than your swine, man. What on earth are you doing here?”
Tuck hefted his trousers up, over his belly button, and took his time climbing on to a barstool. He lifted his left buttock and farted loudly, then ordered three beers. One for Behrtric, one for Eadgar and one for himself. The beers quickly came and the three men took a second to enjoy the bitter warm oaky taste.
“My word, that does hit the spot,” said Tuck. He looked like a spot.
“Amen to that,” said Behrtric.
Eadgar nodded in agreement. “We don’t often see you in here,” he said. “Had enough of Ethelred at last?”
Tuck laughed like a constipated pig. A man the other side of the bar looked up at the noise, then smiled to himself. Tuck didn’t notice, or, if he did, he didn’t care.
“Had enough of Ethelred indeed! Well, there’s plenty to have enough of. No, I came to find you.”
He finished his beer in a mouthful, and waited for the two to buy him another.
“Well, you found us now,” said Behrtric. “You can go home now.”
Tuck gave up waiting and bought himself another beer. “Did you two tell the foreigner that my pigs were birds?” he asked.
It was Behrtric and Eadgar’s turn to laugh like blocked-up hogs. The man on the other side of the bar smiled to himself again.
“Oi,” said Behrtric. “Who said you could laugh?”
“No one,” said the man. “But when I looked at your ugly face I couldn’t help myself.”
Tuck squealed once more. “Gentlemen,” he said, “this is my good friend Borin.”
“We’ve met,” said Behrtric and Eadgar. “You sell pots and pans, don’t you?”
Borin nodded. “I’m the blacksmith, that’s right.”
Eadgar snorted. “I saw the foreigner over your way the other day,” he said. “What did he want?”
Tuck jumped in – “Mmm! That’s what I wanted to say to you. The foreigner came over to my farm and asked if he could buy a hundred birds from me. I told him I didn’t sell birds, but he insisted that I did. Pink animals with flat noses and curly tails, he said. He wanted a hundred of them.”
“Ha!” said Behrtric. “Did you tell him they were pigs?”
“Course not. I figured you’d been winding him up. So I said ‘Oh, birds! I couldn’t understand your funny accent. Sure, I’ve got loads of birds. Why didn’t you say?’”
“And then what did you do?” asked Eadgar.
“I sold him a hundred pigs. What do you think I did?”
“No, I mean what did he want with a hundred pigs?”
“That’s the thing: he didn’t even want the whole pig. He just wanted the skins. ‘No,’ I told him. ‘It’s called the feathers!’ So I sold him a hundred pigskins for the price of a hundred pigs, and kept the insides for myself. Made a tidy little profit on the whole thing too.”
“So if that’s the case,” said Behrtric, “I guess you’ll be buying us all another drink, won’t you?”
Tuck snorted, but he called the bar keep over all the same.
“Get one for Boring too,” said Behrtric. “He must have worked up a thirst selling pots and pans all day, poor dear.”
Borin agreed. The best way to deal with people like Behrtric, he’d long ago found, was just to agree with them. They soon got tired of it.
“He came to my smithy, too,” he said, before he’d even touched his drink. “He wanted the biggest iron pot I had. So I showed him the King’s model. He wanted me to make one even bigger.”
“Fascinating,” said Eadgar.
“That’s not the strange part,” said Borin.
“You’re the strange part,” said Tuck.
“He wanted to me to weld the lid on tight,” Borin said, “so that you couldn’t take it off. Then he wanted two little holes made in the middle of the lid, with long pipes coming out from them. He said he wanted the whole thing to be airtight, except for the two holes at the end of the pipes.”
“He’s an odd one,” said Tuck.
“I don’t trust him,” said Behrtric.
“Oh, I don’t know about that. He’s harmless enough. Just odd, I think.”
Borin weighed in again. “I heard he’s been building something over by the marsh. Big as a house, they say it is.” He finished his drink and nodded at Tuck. “Your kids told me that,” he said. “They’ve been helping him build it. Said he calls it a hot-air powered flying machine.”
Tuck hopped off his seat. “My kids?” he said. “My babies? With that lunatic?” He waddled out the door as fast as his little legs could carry him.
“Well,” said Behrtric. “Are we going, or what?”
* * *
Stork was ten feet high and rising when they saw him. He’d sewn the pigskins together to make a giant ball with a hole at the base. He’d tied that to a mighty basket. The floor of the basket was made of metal, and in the centre of it was a fire. Above the fire was Borin’s pot, filled with bubbling water. Steam was directed through the two pipes and into the pigskin ball. The steam had inflated the ball, and the whole thing was wobbling across the sky like a duck’s first flight.
Two ropes hung over the sides of the basket, and holding on to the ropes for dear life were Tuck’s babies – Kenward and Leofric.
“Help!” screamed Kenward.
“Help!” screamed Leofric.
“HELPPPPP!” screamed Stork, loudest of all. The sides of the basket had caught on fire, and the pot was about to topple overboard. No good could come from that at all.
Tuck, Behrtric, Eadgar and Borin were in thick forest when they heard the clang of the pot hitting the ground. By the time they reached the marsh the hot air-powered flying machine was trapped in the middle of it, its pilots very muddy and upset.
Another forgotten chapter in the history of failed flight.
Copyright © 2013 by Christopher James